Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison spent much of Tuesday morning pleading with state premiers to stick with the COVID plan and start easing restrictions once the country achieves a 70 per cent vaccination rate, but scientists warn that this could lead to mass fatalities.
The plan, based on modelling from the Doherty Institute, provides vaccine thresholds for a four-stage reopening roadmap but expert scientists fear it could lead to 29,000 fatalities.
Epidemiologists and economists from the Australian National University (ANU), the University of Western Australia and the University of Melbourne claim that the Doherty Institute’s modelling numbers are too low and provide no targets for vaccinating children under 16.
The researchers argue that at least 90 per cent of all Australians, including children, must be vaccinated against COVID-19 before fully relaxing public health measures and opening the international border.
Under the national plan, once more than 80 per cent of adults receive two doses of COVID-19 vaccines, equivalent to approximately 65 per cent of the total population, the nation will “manage COVID-19 consistent with public health management of other infectious diseases”.
Professor Quentin Grafton from ANU said that the new modelling showed Australia could not afford to go down that path, both in terms of lives lost and the number of long-term illnesses likely to be caused by COVID.
“We found substantial morbidity and mortality is likely to occur if the Australian government sticks to the national plan,” he said.
“Our modelling shows if 70 per cent of Australians over 16 years of age are fully vaccinated, with a 95 per cent vaccination level for those aged 60 years and over, there could eventually be some 6.9 million symptomatic COVID-19 cases, 154,000 hospitalisations, and 29,000 fatalities.
“And assuming 80 per cent vaccination coverage for only those over 16, as per the national plan, there could be approximately 25,000 fatalities and some 270,000 cases of long COVID,” Prof. Grafton said.
“In contrast, if children are also fully vaccinated, national fatalities for all age groups would be reduced to 19,000 with 80 per cent adult vaccination coverage. This would fall to 10,000 at a 90 per cent adult vaccination coverage.”
The researchers argue that four key steps must be taken before exposing Australians to uncontrolled COVID-19. These are:
- vaccinating both children and adolescents
- reaching 95 per cent full vaccination among people 60 and older as well as other vulnerable groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders
- giving an mRNA booster shot to all Australians vaccinated with AstraZeneca, as well as a booster shot to those vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine, when appropriate
- reaching more than 90 per cent vaccination coverage among all Australians.
Dr Zoe Hyde, from the University of Western Australia, said most Australians would be unprepared for the consequences of opening up too early.
“The consequences of prematurely and fully relaxing public health measures to suppress COVID-19, even after vaccinating 80 per cent of adults, would likely be irreversible, and unacceptable to many Australians,” Dr Hyde said.
“Even if the country achieves the four steps we are calling for, fully relaxing public health measures to eliminate community transmission could still, eventually, result in some 5000 fatalities and 40,000 cases of long COVID.
“For all these reasons and more, it’s simply too dangerous to treat COVID-19 like the flu,” she said.
“We also can’t forget about our children, who can get very sick from this virus and need protection before we open up.”
Professor Tom Kompas, from the University of Melbourne, said the government still had an opportunity to devise a safe and affordable transition to a post-COVID-19 era, while also admitting that the Delta variant could make the projections even worse.
“Our projections of hospitalisations and fatalities would have been even worse if we had used the higher preliminary estimates of the increased virulence of the Delta variant,” he said.
“This means our projections likely represent a lower estimate of the cumulative public health outcomes of fully relaxing public health measures at Phase D of the national plan, or sooner, if outbreaks are not effectively suppressed or eliminated.
“If national cabinet revises its strategy to include our four vaccination steps, many lives will be saved, and many more, including children, will not suffer from debilitating long COVID.”
The Doherty Institute released this tweet thread on Monday night, explaining its estimates and thoughts behind the modelling and the easing of restrictions:
Do you think Australia is at risk of opening up too early? Are you worried the situation could get out of control if we bungle the easing of restrictions? Do you think the federal government has the health of Australians as its primary area of concern when it is making these decisions or do you fear they are more focused on the upcoming election? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?
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